Creating More Inclusive Classrooms—and Space for Difficult Conversations

An interactive workshop offered Tufts educators strategies for embracing awareness of identity in order to have productive conversations around conflict

“Some of the most creative ideas come out of people in conflict remaining in conversation with one another rather than flying into their own corners or staking out entrenched positions. The challenge for leaders is to develop structures and processes in which such conflicts can be orchestrated productively.”

Facilitator and educator Liza Talusan shared that quotation from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002) during “Engaging in Difficult Conversations,” the interactive workshop that she led on February 6. More than 35 members of the university faculty participated in the workshop at Joyce Cummings Center on the university’s Medford/Somerville campus, either in person or via Zoom.

The workshop is part of the Inclusive Teaching Seminar Series sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Inclusive Excellence and the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching.

Talusan reframed Heifetz and Linsky’s challenge as applicable to educators as well as leaders of organizations and acknowledged that engaging in difficult conversations (particularly ones involving questions of identity) can “feel very chaotic.” She went on to use the session to give Tufts faculty members a series of strategies—those “structures and processes”—as a way of navigating those feelings of chaos. 

One tool drawn from her own teaching—the critical check-in—encourages instructors to use a scale from 1 to 10 to measure their readiness to engage with a given topic by quantifying how often they talk about a particular issue in the course of their instruction. The purpose of the critical check-in: to give educators the chance to confront directly where they are starting from before beginning their work with students.

Proximity, another strategy introduced to the group by Talusan, invites educators to consider carefully how their nearness to—or distance from—any number of issues (age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, political beliefs, and the like) makes a particular conversation difficult for them. 

Cutting across the tactics Talusan demonstrated was the pursuit of an identity-conscious practice, which she defined as the process of realizing that “who we are has an impact on how we act, how we interact… the kinds of relationships that we build, and how we see the world around us.”

Conflict, she continued, derives from a failure to understand that everyone can develop a different viewpoint steeped in who they are and where they are coming from. The optimal strategy for engaging in difficult conversations, she offered, is to “realize that everything we do is informed and impacted by identity,” and then to build the skills of curiosity, collaboration, critical thinking, and compassion as tools for making those difficult conversations as constructive as they can possibly be. 

“What I have learned in my 27 years of doing this work is that, if you want to start a fight… there will be someone who will fight you about issues of identity, and you don’t have to go very far,” Talusan told participants. “But if you want to have discourse and productive conversations about conflict, you have to develop habits and skills for it.”

A facilitator, educator, and scholar-practitioner in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Talusan is also a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches graduate-level courses focused on leadership, equity, and justice. Her book The Identity-Conscious Educator: Building Habits and Skills for More Inclusive Schools (Solution Tree Press) received a gold medal in the 2023 IPPY Awards.

This workshop is part of Tufts Talks Openly, a newly launched series of programs across Tufts focused on building awareness and knowledge to nurture an inclusive community. Among other Tufts Talks Openly offerings: a series of conversations called “Dialogue and Action in an Age of Divides,” organized with colleagues from across nine Massachusetts universities; expanded programming on inclusive and responsive dialogues; employee trainings on navigating challenging interactions; and training sessions on addressing hate and discrimination, including antisemitism and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias. 

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